For GOP, Election Anxiety Mounts
Candidates Need Convincing for '06
By Charles Babington and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 10, 2005; Page A01
Republican politicians in multiple states have
recently decided not to run for Senate next year,
stirring anxiety among Washington operatives about the
effectiveness of the party's recruiting efforts and
whether this signals a broader decline in GOP
Prominent Republicans have passed up races in North
Dakota and West Virginia, both GOP-leaning states with
potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Earlier,
Republican recruiters on Capitol Hill and at the White
House failed to lure their first choices to run in
Florida, Michigan and Vermont.
These setbacks have prompted grumbling. Some
Republican operatives, including some who work closely
with the White House, privately point to what they
regard as a lackluster performance by Sen. Elizabeth
Dole (N.C.) as chairman of the National Republican
Senatorial Committee, the group that heads fundraising
and candidate recruitment for GOP senators.
But some strategists more sympathetic to Dole point
the finger right back. With an unpopular war in Iraq,
ethical controversies shadowing top Republicans in the
House and Senate, and President Bush suffering the
lowest approval ratings of his presidency, the waters
look less inviting to politicians deciding whether to
plunge into an election bid. Additionally, some
Capitol Hill operatives complain that preoccupied
senior White House officials have been less engaged in
candidate recruitment than they were for the 2002 and
2004 elections. These sources would speak only on
background because of the sensitivity of partisan
Historically, Senate and House races are often won or
lost in the year before the election, as a party's
prospects hinge critically on whether the most capable
politicians decide to invest time, money and personal
pride in a competitive race. Often, this commitment
takes some coaxing.
That is why Dole met twice with Rep. Shelly Moore
Capito (R-W.Va.) and a third time with Capito and her
father, former governor Arch A. Moore Jr., in an
effort to persuade her to take on Sen. Robert C. Byrd
(D). Bush won 56 percent of the vote in West Virginia
last year, making many think Byrd, who will turn 88
next month, can be halted in his bid for a record
ninth term. But last week, Capito said she has decided
to stay put and seek election to a fourth House term.
Last month, White House political strategist Karl Rove
flew to Bismarck to implore the North Dakota's popular
Republican governor, John Hoeven, to challenge Sen.
Kent Conrad (D). Rove could argue with some compelling
numbers: Bush won 63 percent of the state's
presidential votes last year, and Hoeven trounced his
Democratic opponents in 2000 and 2004. But the
governor said no thanks, and Republicans concede they
have no strong second choice.
Perhaps no state has frustrated the GOP elite more
than Florida, where Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is trying for
a second term after winning his first with 51 percent
of the vote. After failing to persuade Rep. Katherine
Harris to stay out of the race, GOP leaders began a
public search for an alternative candidate. State
House Speaker Allan Bense was courted by Florida Gov.
Jeb Bush (R) before bowing out. Dole took a private
plane to New York in an unsuccessful attempt to
persuade conservative commentator and former Florida
representative Joe Scarborough to make the race.
Many Democrats and some independents revile Harris for
the role she played, as Florida secretary of state, in
favoring George W. Bush in the 2000 recount process.
But she has enough hard-core conservative fans to
scare away other Republican Senate hopefuls, and
Democrats are gleefully watching the dispute roil
No Republican who has opted out of a 2006 candidacy
has publicly cited the level of support from national
Republicans or the general political environment as a
reason. Potential candidates have a variety of factors
figuring into whether to make a race. Still, to some
analysts, the decisions suggest deeper currents at
"Is it poor recruiting or a bad environment? Probably
both," said Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races
for the independent Cook Political Report.
A senior Republican familiar with the recruiting
process agreed that the climate has shifted for the
GOP because of a confluence of problems from Iraq to
Hurricane Katrina and high gasoline prices: "Looking
at polls from June or July and then looking at them
now, the deterioration is really bad."
Another Republican, pollster Tony Fabrizio, said a
recruiting chill was inevitable. Candidates "aren't
stupid," he said. "They see the political landscape.
You are asking them to make a huge personal sacrifice.
It's a lot easier to make that sacrifice if you think
there's a rainbow at the end."
Fabrizio accepts the general consensus among political
prognosticators that Republicans are likely to keep
their Senate and House majorities, in part because
there are relatively few open seats, and Democrats
must defend seats in many places that have been
trending Republican. But he and others say the hope
from earlier this year of fortifying these majorities
is now considerably more remote.
The GOP holds 55 Senate seats, but unless the
political climate brightens considerably in the next
few months, some strategists and analysts believe the
next Senate may resemble the one after the 2002
election, when Republicans held the narrowest of
In part this is because Democrats have seemingly found
their stride as Republicans are stumbling in the
recruiting race. Since Sept. 1, Democrats have lured
their preferred candidate, Missouri state Auditor
Claire McCaskill, to take on freshman Sen. James M.
Talent (R), and have done the same in Arizona, where
former Democratic Party chairman Jim Pederson, a
wealthy developer, is poised to challenge two-term
Sen. Jon Kyl.
Republicans will also struggle to hold on to
Pennsylvania, where recent polls show state treasurer
Bob Casey Jr. with a substantial lead over two-term
Sen. Rick Santorum. In Rhode Island, liberal
Republican Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee is being challenged
by Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey in the party primary,
prompting the NRSC to run TV ads attacking Laffey.
Democrats hope the survivor will be too bloodied to
win the general election in a state that Bush lost by
20 percentage points.
Dole can count some successes. She was hoping Mike
McGavick, the former chairman of Safeco Corp., would
take a fight to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) in Washington,
and he is. In Minnesota, she scored her first choice,
Rep. Mark Kennedy (R), to run for retiring Democrat
Mark Dayton's seat, and cleared the GOP field for him.
But in Michigan, the White House and the NRSC moved
quickly to persuade Rep. Candice S. Miller (R) to take
on Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D). After Miller refused the
entreaties, attention turned to David A. Brandon,
Domino's Pizza Inc. chief executive, as the Republican
candidate of choice. Brandon, too, told Republican
recruiters no. After Vermont independent Sen. James M.
Jeffords's retirement announcement earlier this year,
Gov. Jim Douglas (R) came under considerable pressure
to run for the Senate but resisted. Until 10 months
ago, then-Gov. Mike Johanns of Republican-leaning
Nebraska was the GOP's hands-down choice to challenge
incumbent Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson, but then Bush
appointed him secretary of agriculture.
It is the NRSC's fundraising that some GOP operatives
find underwhelming. At the end of August, the NRSC had
raised $25 million, just a little less than its
counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign
Committee. But the DSCC has twice as much cash on
hand, $16.7 million to the NRSC's $8.2 million.
Brian Nick, NRSC spokesman, said this fall's gloomy
forecasts will give way to brighter skies next year.
"We feel very, very strongly that we're going to be
able to protect the majority where it is right now,"
with no erosion, he said. After all, Nick noted, "the
election is over a year away."
On the House side, where Republicans hold 231 of the
435 seats, the effect of the political climate on
recruiting is less clear. Democrats and Republicans
can point to successes in individual races, but no
clear national pattern has emerged, analysts say.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman
Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) says 50 or more seats are in play
and notes that his organization has recruited 40
candidates in competitive districts. His GOP
counterpart, Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), says 27 to 37
seats could be close fights. "We will be a majority"
after the 2006 elections, vowed the chairman of the
National Republican Congressional Committee.